Wednesday, May 17, 2006

How to pick up chicks...

Preparation is the key. I mean, once you have done the pickup, you have to know what to do once you get them home. It also helps to have a good backup plan.

Being a procrastinator, I started with the preparations this morning. I pulled the 100 gallon stock watering tub out of the garage, dumped last year's chick litter, some cat doodee, and other assorted stuff out of it, and washed it down really well with the hose. I left it leaning upside-down against a tree to dry out.

People brood chicks in a variety of containers. Some make a special brooder with a wire mesh bottom, thermostatically controlled heaters, red lights (to reduce pecking), automatic waterers and feeders, and all kinds of high-tech stuff. Others use a cardboard box with wood shavings on the bottom, and set it on the coffee table in the living room. Still others use a bathtub.

We like to use stock watering tubs because they are waterproof and dust proof. They are also sturdy enough to keep the cats out.

We put a few inches of pine shavings on the bottom to absorb the moisture. Then, we use sticks across the top to suspend a feeder and a waterer. Both are raised to the level of the backs of the chicks, and are raised every few days as the chicks grow. On top of the whole thing, we put chicken wire, then a couple utility type lamps with aluminum shades. Those lamps keep the chicks warm. We use two so that they won't be totally out of heat if one burns out. Sometimes, we add aluminum foil to reflect the heat back down. We end up putting the foil on at night, and removing it during the day.

You are supposed to keep the chicks at about 95 degrees, and reduce it by five degrees every week until they are old enough to be out on their own.

So Mary and I went to the feed store today to pick up our order. We had ordered two dozen broiler chicks, half a dozen gray leghorn pullets, and half a dozen Indian Runner ducks. Kevin, the owner of the Le Roy Milling Company and Garden Supply store, threw in an extra couple broilers for free. You just gotta love small town family-owned businesses. His dad was there today helping out. Some day, his son will take over the business.

Anyhow, we brought the chicks and ducklings home and proceeded with plan A.

There are a couple broody buff orpington hens that have been trying to make babies all spring. Of course, since it's difficult to keep track of which eggs are being incubated, and which are supposed to be eaten, we have simply been taking all the eggs and putting up with their grouchy pecking and growling. Two days ago, I stuffed them both into a doghouse with a bunch of hay (and some plastic Easter eggs) on the bottom, and feed and water inside. I opened it yesterday and one of them abandoned her post and ended up trying to set eggs in the manger. I stuffed her back in last night and blocked the entrance.

So here we come from the feed store with a bunch of unhappy and loudly chirping chickens -- not to mention some unhappily peeping ducks. I took them out to the broody house, removed the plastic eggs (the hens didn't like them anyhow) and stuffed them all in. The hens were quite overwhelmed. The chicks were still peeping unhappily, but some got a clue and started burrowing into the hens' feathers.

Well, I didn't know how well it would work out. It's not a matter of fooling the hens as much as it's a matter of triggering the mothering instinct. I just shut them all in and left. I came back in a couple minutes and stuffed a duck and chick back in because they had made it past the blockade. After securing things better, I left.

A few minutes later, I went back. I heard nothing but the soft clucking that a mother hen makes when she's content. Success!

Later, I heard the plaintive cheeping of one chick. Its leg had gotten pinned under a stiff stalk of hay. I freed it and gave it back to its adoptive mother.

So far, so good. Two mother hens, 32 chicks, and six ducks all seem to be happy. I'm happy, too, because I don't have to fuss with the brooder. The hen does a better job of it, anyhow.

I'll let them settle in for a few hours, then rearrange the food and water so that the chicks can get at it easily. All I have to do beyond that is to make sure that everyone has a good supply of food and water. The hens even protect the babies from our predatory mommy cat.


Our gratuitous photo of the day is one of last year's mother hens with her chicks. I'll get some picture of this year's brood once everyone is settled in.

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